Chicago Colleges: 2011 midseason team reports

Midseason report: Northwestern

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
1:39
PM CT
Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 2-3 (0-2 Big Ten)

The first half of Northwestern's season has mirrored its performances in recent games: things start off great, only to take a nosedive. After a school-record three consecutive bowl appearances, Northwestern entered the fall with high hopes and a Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Dan Persa. But Persa's surgically repaired Achilles' injury prevented him from playing in the first three games -- the senior had a setback in June, although it didn't stop the school from launching a Heisman campaign -- and likely cost Northwestern a Week 3 win against Army. The season still began with promise as backup quarterback Kain Colter led Northwestern to a road win against Boston College. But Colter struggled mightily in the Army game, and though Persa has performed well since his return for the Big Ten opener against Illinois, Northwestern is mired in a troubling trend. The Wildcats have blown double-digit second-half leads in each of their first two Big Ten games and gone on to lose. The second-half collapses mirror what we saw last year in losses to Michigan State and Penn State. The offense will produce with Persa on the field, but Northwestern's defense is a huge concern. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. The Wildcats can't get off of the field -- opponents are converting third downs at a 54.8 percent clip -- and their secondary has major holes. An inability to put together complete performances has hurt Northwestern, which might struggle to continue its streak of bowl appearances.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Kain Colter. While Persa has been terrific since his return, Northwestern is 0-2 with their leader on the field. Colter led the Wildcats to their only two victories, racking up 180 rush yards and four touchdowns against Boston College and Eastern Illinois. While his struggles against Army showed he hasn't arrived yet, he stepped up during Persa's absence. Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert (26 receptions, 5 TDs) also merits a mention.

Defensive MVP: Safety Brian Peters. As poorly as Northwestern's secondary has performed, it would be even worse without Peters. The senior has recorded two interceptions, including a nifty grab in the end zone against Illinois, and added a forced fumble, two pass breakups, a sack and 35 tackles. Linebacker Bryce McNaul merits a mention here.

Midseason report: Notre Dame

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
1:38
PM CT
Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Record: 4-2

Seems like it was years ago that the Irish were 0-2 and panic mode had set in across South Bend. But four straight wins — three in dominant fashion — have significantly altered the mood around the program, which is beginning to show the kind of offensive fireworks expected with a Brian Kelly-run unit. Notre Dame is clicking on all cylinders there, with Tommy Rees showing the growth Kelly has wanted and quieting those calling for his head and doubting Kelly's decision to replace Dayne Crist after one mediocre half in Week 1. The running game has exceeded everyone's expectations but its own, with Jonas Gray answering Kelly's call in grand fashion following a costly Week 1 fumble. And the defense, save for the fourth quarter of Week 2 at Michigan, has been a force to be reckoned with, particularly against the run. There is still no clear answer in the punt return game, which can become a bigger problem as the season progresses, but Notre Dame has managed to weather the storm through six weeks. Plenty of games remain after this coming bye week, and the Irish have certainly shown they are capable of tripping over themselves, but that finale at Stanford is looking more and more like it may be a play-in contest for a BCS bowl.

Offensive MVP: WR Michael Floyd. The senior has treated a rocky offseason like a distant memory, obliterating the records of every Irish receiver who came before him en route to a 53-catch, 639-yard first half of the season. On an offense featuring several skill players who have surpassed preseason expectations, Floyd has been the brightest star of the group. Just look at the offensive production at Pitt, where he was held in check, for proof of how valuable Floyd is to the unit.

Defensive MVP: LB Manti Te'o. The junior leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks and is on pace for 127.8 tackles. Yes, that is a little less than his ridiculous 133-tackle output last season, but he has improved as a player since then, showing much more discipline and not going for the knockout blow in the open field. He has also embraced the role of leader along with team captain Harrison Smith, becoming more vocal when he needs to and helping set a tone for the many freshmen on the unit.

Midseason report: Illinois

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
1:38
PM CT
Illinois Fighting Illini

Record: 6-0 (2-0 Big Ten)

Some teams benefit from an advantageous schedule. Still, it's up to the team to make the most of that advantage. Illinois has definitely done that. Thanks in large part to an ultra-friendly slate that kept them at home for the first five weeks before a road game at struggling Indiana, the Illini are off to their best start since the 1951 team began 7-0. But let's give Ron Zook's team some credit beyond the schedule as well. Like it was at the end of last year, the Illinois offense is a balanced, well-oiled machine, averaging almost the same amount of rushing yards (226) as passing yards (221). Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as a passer and remains a strong running threat, while senior A.J. Jenkins has blossomed into the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten. They're augmented by a deep backfield (Jason Ford, Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard) that has made up for the loss of Mikel Leshoure. Maybe more impressively, the defense absorbed the loss of NFL draft picks Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson without much problem. Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan have harassed opposing quarterbacks from their defensive end spots, and linebacker Jonathan Brown -- when he isn't kneeing players in the groin -- comes flying at ball carriers in all directions. Illinois has also showed a fighting spirit, winning three straight games by exactly three points. Of course, it helped that those all came at home. But the Illini have maximized that assistance so far this season.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. It's hard to go against Scheelhaase, who is putting together a terrific season and who has accounted for 14 touchdowns throwing and running this year. But Jenkins has been superb as Scheelhaase's favorite target. He ranks fifth nationally in receiving yards and leads the Big Ten with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.


Defensive MVP: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior has looked unblockable at times while leading the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four). Not bad for a guy who had started only two career games before this season.

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